News and Observer February 16, 2004

Head of state ecosystem program defends land deal

By RICHARD STRADLING, LYNN BONNER AND DAN KANE, Staff Writers

The former president of a Franklin County conservation group stands to receive about $1 million from two government agencies in a deal the group put together to protect about 400 acres of farmland.

Felix Allen of Louisburg headed the board of the Tar River Land Conservancy when it asked the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service for money to buy conservation easements on farmland Allen owns in northern Franklin County. The conservancy, a nonprofit based in Louisburg, hopes to close the deal within a few weeks.

The Ecosystem Enhancement Program judges land on its ecological merits, Director Bill Gilmore said, and the Allen property, along a relatively undisturbed stretch of Sandy Creek, helps protect water quality in the Tar River basin.

Neither Allen's position on the board, nor the fact that his wife, state Rep. Lucy Allen, co-owns the property, factored into the decision, Gilmore said.

"We're running a process that is blind to that kind of information," he said.

The federal program had no problem with Allen's position on the conservancy's board either, at least initially.

Dick Fowler, assistant state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the feds will help a group buy land or an easement from one if its board members, but only if the member steps down when the deal closes to avoid potential conflicts in enforcing the easement.

Allen stepped down in August, before the federal grant was approved. Allen, a Raleigh accountant, said he resigned in part to avoid the kinds of questions of conflict raised by reports last spring showing how Nature Conservancy board members had benefited financially from dealings with the organization.

"I regret that I had to resign, because I'm pretty passionate about conservation," he said.

In early September, Allen also resigned from the board of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, the umbrella organization for private land trusts.

Two months later, the state hired the Conservation Trust to help find land suitable for preservation through the Ecosystem Enhancement Program. To avoid the appearance of inside dealing, the group had to agree that none of its board members would benefit financially.

"In a way, it's going to penalize people on our board who have property that might be good for the program," said Reid Wilson, the trust's executive director. "But that's sort of a necessary evil for making sure all of this is ethical and clear and straight."

My bad, Ballantine says

House Republican Speaker Richard Morgan got an apology last week from Republican Sen. Patrick Ballantine's office for forwarding an e-mail message that called Morgan's comments about redistricting "treasonous spin."

Ashley Stephenson of Beaufort County -- along with Ballantine, one of the Republicans suing to block the new legislative districts that Morgan helped put together -- shared that opinion in an e-mail message he sent to a Republican activist in Wake County.

The message was forwarded to Ballantine's office. His legislative aide forwarded it to GOP legislators.

Joel Raupe, Ballantine's administrative assistant, called Stephenson's comments about Morgan "unfortunate hyperbole."

"There's no animosity between Patrick and Speaker Morgan," Raupe said. "It's just a big mistake."

A spokeswoman in Morgan's office said he did not think it was appropriate for a legislator's office to distribute that kind of e-mail but is glad to have the apology.

Keeping in touch

* U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance, a Warrenton Democrat, is bringing his Washington staff to the First Congressional District for several days of "State of the District" briefings that begin today with forums on Medicare and Medicaid at the Vance County Senior Center in Henderson and at the Halifax County Agriculture Center.

His staff will help constituents with issues including agriculture and veterans' affairs. The forums -- from 10 a.m. to noon in Henderson and from 1 to 3 p.m. in Halifax -- will include free screenings for cholesterol, diabetes and other ailments. For more information, call Ballance's office at (202) 225-3101.

* U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat, is launching his own cable television show, "From North Carolina to the Capitol."